Ray Shero, Lou Lamoriello and end of Devils hockey as we knew it

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Ray Shero, Lou Lamoriello and end of Devils hockey as we knew it
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On April, 30, 1987, Lou Lamoriello was named the third general manager in New Jersey Devils history. Just over 28 years later, they have a fourth. 

In the span between Lamoriello taking over the Devils and relinquishing his job to former Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero, New Jersey has experienced (in particular order):

- Three Stanley Cups, won in the span of eight seasons.

- Five conference championships.

- Nine division titles.

- Three major work stoppages.

- Four ownership groups.

- Moving to a new arena.

- The franchise-shifting thievery of Scott Stevens from the St. Louis Blues, as compensation for Brendan Shanahan.

- The drafting of Martin Brodeur and Scott Niedermayer, both as the result of trades.

- Twenty-one head coaches named to the job, including Jacques Lemaire and Lamoriello himself three times.

- The establishment of the team’s defensive philosophy, which would be its calling card for over two decades.

- One 17-year, er, 15-year contract to a player now in Russia.

- The departure of at least a dozen other players, chasing the money to places like Madison Square Garden and Minnesota.

- From 1987-2012, qualifying for the playoffs in 21 seasons out of 23.

Then came three straight seasons in which the Devils missed the playoffs.

Then came the end of an era for Devils hockey.

“They have not been good years. I don’t feel good about it. I take responsibility for that. I really do. For where we are right now. But now this is a chance to go forward,” said Lamoriello.

All due respect to Brodeur and Stevens and Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko and every other player that wore the sweater, but to a man they’d say the same thing:

Lou Lamoreillo was Devils hockey.

His roster, his rules, his finger on the trigger for every coach he hired. His philosophy permeated every level, office and locker in the organization, from the way Devils employees wore their facial hair to the way they interacted with the public to the system the players executed on the ice. His fingers were on every facet of the organization, from player personnel (frequently briliant) to team marketing (or lack thereof). At least once in my career covering the team, he stopped me in the bowels of the arena to check my credential status -- president, GM, bouncer, perhaps.

(Also, Lamoriello’s uncanny knack for keeping information from leaking was honored in Monday’s phone conference, as news of Shero’s hiring wasn’t broken until Lou himself broke it.)

You don’t see moments like this often in sports, and especially not today when the lifespan of executive is generally shorter than it was when Lamoriello started. This is Jerry West giving up the Lakers’ GM gig. This is, perhaps more accurately, George Young leaving the New York football Giants -- a legend that built something dynastic, and then seemingly lost his touch. 

Unlike those two, Lamoriello will remain as the team’s president, but it’s fairly obvious what this move connotes.

Lamoriello vowed on Monday that this wasn’t ownership pushing him upstairs. “This is my decision with 100 percent support of ownership,” he said.

And it was … sorta. Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record reports that Devils ownership “pushed strongly” for Lamoriello to hire a new general manager, but that Shero was ultimately Lou’s pick.

Josh Harris and David Blitzer purchased the Devils from Jeff Vanderbeek in 2013. While they took away Lamoriello’s business responsibilities – mutually agreed upon, allegedly so he could concentrate on hockey ops – they also backed him as general manager and team president. “I’d like to think that Lou would stay with this team as long as he likes,” Blitzer said.

Yet Lamoriello indicated that this move was in the works for some time. “Something like this doesn’t happen overnight. The day I was brought in with new ownership, this type of a plan was talked about. Certainly my age isn’t hidden,” said Lamoriello, 73.

“It’s the right thing. I think we have to be realistic in life. We have to be honest. We have a person at a perfect age (52), with experience.”

Things had gotten ugly in the seasons following the ownership change. The departure of Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk left an un-fillable void for the team, as Lamoriello frantically pieced together veteran players like a chef trying to save a over-salted dish. He fired coach Pete DeBoer, and named himself, Adam Oates and Scott Stevens as co-coaches. He traded for Cory Schneider of the Vancouver Canucks after Martin Brodeur had re-upped with the team, causing a distraction and briefly a rift between the Devils and the best player in franchise history.

What Lamoriello said at the time of the Schneider deal was what he said on Monday: If given the chance to make a significant move, you make the move, no matter the timing.

With Shero in high demand this offseason, getting a hard look from teams like the Boston Bruins, Lamoriello felt it was imperative to sign him pronto.

“Timing is everything in life. The opportunity to bring in someone like Ray Shero, you have to make that decision,” he said.

Shero fits with another Lamoriello philosophy: Borrowing another team’s winning tradition. He did it when he sprinkled Canadiens fairy dust on his roster with Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson, Claude Lemieux and Stephane Richer. He cited it again in bringing in Shero, even if it might mean a shift in the team’s tenets.

“I think there’s been a certain philosophy here that’s been successful for a number of years, and the decision was to get someone that has experience in different organizations but also a background in winning. I think that’s what’s extremely important in what you do. There is a difference,” said Lamoriello.

***

Shero’s first experience with Lamoriello was when he was the head coach of the Providence Friars and Shero was a player at St. Lawrence University. His first experience with the Devils organization was when his father, the legendary Fred Shero, was the team’s first color commentator in 1982.

He was fired by the Pittsburgh Penguins last summer along with coach Dan Bylsma after Pittsburgh lost in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After having signed on in 2006, Shero helped build two conference champions and a Stanley Cup champion around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. 

Still under contract with the Penguins, he said he received a call from them telling Shero that Lamoriello was interested in speaking with him. He sat down with Lou and the Devils owners, and the decision was made to move forward with his taking over as general manager.

“Working with Lou Lamoriello – a hockey Hall of Famer, one of the most respected GMs in the history of the game – wasn’t something I was going to turn down,” said Shero, for whom the Devils will owe no compensation to the Penguins 

There are two basic questions when it comes to Shero and the Devils: His autonomy and how he’s grown as a general manager.

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 31: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and General Manager Ray Shero of the Penguins walk into a press conference held before the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Pittsburgh Penguins on January 31, 2012 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Shero and Crosby addressed the media concerning Crosby's injuries. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 31: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and General Manager Ray Shero of the Penguins walk into a press conference held before the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Pittsburgh Penguins on January 31, 2012 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Shero and Crosby addressed the media concerning Crosby's injuries. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Lamoriello remains as the team’s president, and it’s clear he’ll still have a role in hockey operations. But he said Shero has free reign.

“Ray’s role will be general manager. He will have the powers that come with that position,” he said. “I certainly know what kind of autonomy you need in that position. I’ll over see the operation, and Ray will report to me and ownership like we all do. We will work together.”

Shero, for example, will hire the next Devils head coach after the three-headed monster is disassembled.

(Cue Dan Bylsma to New Jersey/“we’re getting the band back together” speculation.)

He’ll also help build around a roster that has an elite goalie in Schneider and some great young defensemen in the system, but not nearly enough offensive pop in the pipeline. And here’s where Shero is going to have to outrun his past: His trading history after the Penguins’ Cup was lackluster; his draft history overall was atrocious at the forward spot.

Lamoriello believes that a year away from the NHL gave Shero time to reflect on what went wrong in Pittsburgh.

“’What went right? What can I do different?’ We’re going to be the beneficiary of that experience,” he said.

Shero said he’s thought plenty about it. “You make yourself better for it,” he said.

He’ll be the beneficiary of his own history, as well as the Devils’ former GM’s experience.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Lamoriello said.

***

One of Lamoriello’s go-to answers when asked about the Devils’ inner workings: “Status quo.”

On Monday, things were no longer status quo for his franchise.

What becomes of “Devils Hockey” with Lamoriello gently shoved upstairs and with Ray Shero running things?

Shero’s said the right things with regard to keeping those philosophies in place, but building on them.

“The defensive structure that’s in place, with the goaltending they had last year … if we could add to that a little more offensive philosophy,” he said.

“New Jersey’s foundation, for 30 years, was build on defensive hockey,” he said. “Up front is certainly an area in terms of looking to score more goals, create more offense, without abandoning the defensive structure and accountability that’s in place for years.”

But something has to change. Yes, the Devils made one more run of it in 2012, thanks to a few clutch performances, Ilya Kovalchuk’s playoff run and one last ride with Brodeur. But the following three seasons were busts and, worse, seemed rudderless. Lamoriello didn’t appear to have a solution for the Devils’ downgrade in a salary cap league. The old dogs weren’t doing the trick. The coaching change didn’t help. Hell, it could be argued that the Devils’ push for mediocrity faced them face but cost them a better shot at Connor McDavid. 

Speaking for young franchise players: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang were already in place when Shero took over in Pittsburgh. That’s a hell of a head start that he doesn’t have the benefit of in Jersey.

But as the saying goes around New Jersey: “In Lou We Trust.”

The last thing this man wants to see is the New Jersey Devils’ failure. It’s still the franchise of the late Dr. John McMullen. It’s still the franchise that Lamoriello spent nearly 30 years transforming into a standard-bearer in the NHL. It’s still a team for whom Lamoriello talks about the pride in “the logo on the front” when announcing Ray Shero’s hiring.

It may not be Agent J selecting Agent K as his Men In Black replacement with the planet’s fate on the line, but it’s the same sense of pride in maintaining a line of succession. 

“Certainly Ray and I have talked about philosophies. In order for people to work together, they have to share some philosophies,” Lamoriello said.

“I would assume we would have some type of changes. Ray might do some things differently than I did. But so be it. That’s progression.”